Previously posted at BobbyPowers.net
I thought I knew how to ask good questions until I met a guy named James.
As I began to work with James, I watched in awe as I compared his questions to my own. He used questions as a sharp-edged knife to cut through mental clutter, uncertainty, and decision paralysis. Whether we were in an all-hands meeting, a team meeting, or a 1-on-1, James knew when to broaden a discussion to include more viewpoints and when to narrow it to drive toward a decision.
For years, I had known in my gut that asking better questions was the secret to unlocking better answers, but I had struggled to find any good resources on the topic. I’d read books with promising titles like Good Leaders Ask Great Questions, but the books didn’t provide enough tactical advice to be helpful.
Over the past two years, I’ve been taking notes on what I’ve observed from James and other leaders who ask the right question at the right time. These 11 tips have helped me immensely, and I’m sure they’ll help you as well.
1. Ask one question at a time.
One of my colleagues tends to spray questions like a shotgun blast. He’ll rattle off four questions at once and leave everyone wondering what they’re supposed to answer: The first question? The last one? The one they’re most comfortable answering? All of them, if they can remember the full list?
Exercise discipline with your questions. Ask one question at a time, then move on to the next question. Doing so will lead to more robust discussion, fewer blank stares, and a more engaged decision-making process.
2. Opt for shorter questions.
“You don’t need a runway of context, justification, and general flim-flam to be curious. It’s not really about you. Save everyone the time, and just ask the question.” -Michael Bungay Stanier
Asking long questions is often as bad as asking multiple questions. Long questions confuse others. People get lost in the rambling, rollicking nature of long questions, which makes it more difficult for them to respond with useful information.
For example, which question would you rather answer?
- “You’re a really talented person, and I think you can achieve a lot at our company. Would you be interested in taking over Terry’s job as Head Accountant or is that not something that interests you? I mean, it’s okay if you don’t want to do that…I just think you’d be a great fit, and Terry will be leaving soon so we need someone to fill that role. I know you have a lot of ambition and you’ve also talked about switching departments, so I’m not sure where exactly you want to go in your career. What do you think?”
- “Would you be interested in stepping into the Head Accountant role when Terry leaves the company?”
It takes a surprising amount of confidence to ask shorter questions, like the second one above. Our brains want to fill in more details rather than cutting ourselves off after we’ve asked the question.
Don’t give your tongue an unnecessary workout. Ask short, simple questions.
3. Become comfortable with silence.
According to a 2018 article in Inc., most Americans feel awkward after about four seconds of silence. Many inexperienced leaders rush to fill those awkward silences with something — anything — in order to make themselves and others feel less uncomfortable.
But silence is not a bad thing. Silence is the noise thinking makes.
Silence gives people time to provide a more thoughtful answer to the question you just posed. In many situations, silence is your proof that you’ve just asked the right question.
4. Ask open-ended questions.
Open-ended questions (those that cannot be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”) give the other person full latitude to share their ideas.
In work and in life, open-ended questions provoke rich dialogue rather than one-word responses. If you’re walking out of a movie with a friend, a question like “What did you think of the movie?” elicits a much richer response than a question like “Did you like that movie?”
Similarly, asking your boss “How do you think I’ve been performing lately?” is fundamentally different than “Do you think I’ve been performing well?”
There’s nothing inherently wrong with closed-ended questions. There’s a time and place for them (as we’ll address later), but closed-ended questions tend to be more biased and limiting than open-ended questions.
5. Avoid “Why?” questions.
Questions that begin with “why” tend to make presumptions or suggest solutions (e.g., “Why did you…”, “Why wouldn’t you just…”). Those types of questions put the other person on the defensive, feeling like they need to defend a decision they’ve made or an idea they’ve suggested.
You want to invite someone into a discussion with you — not shut down the conversation with a question that makes the other person defend something.
6. Ask “What” and “How” questions.
If you took a journalism class in high school or college, you probably learned about the “5 W’s and an H”: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. All six of those elements are necessary when writing a story or understanding a concept at a deep level. But some of those questions yield better, fuller answers than others.
Questions that start with “What” or “How” invite the other person to share their ideas with you and the rest of the group. Here are a few examples:
- “What’s on your mind?”
- “What do you think we should do next?”
- “How do you think we could accomplish that?”